Magnus Enckell 1897 "Listeners of Music"
Sexuality and Identity

A Charmed Life

Last Wednesday, in what has rightly been called a milestone victory for gay civil rights, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The Court also let stand a lower court’s decision that the State of California’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

Both were historic decisions, even if the Court’s DOMA ruling did not go as far as many of us wished but few believed would happen. Another provision of DOMA that allows states not to recognize gay marriages legally contracted in other states still stands.

Still, there was much cause to celebrate this milestone and renew the determination to continue the struggle for equality in the remaining 37 states in which same-sex couples cannot legally marry.

People partied. Celebrities tweeted. The Empire State Building donned rainbow stripes and the New Yorker ran a cover with Bert and Ernie snuggled up on the sofa watching the Supreme Court justices on TV. Google boxed gay-related searches in a rainbow frame and Facebook released a “feeling pride” emoji. Smirnoff, Mastercard, Banana Republic and a score of other companies took advantage of the branding opportunity the Court’s rulings provided to roll out pro-equality social media mini-campaigns.

The corporate pride blitz led essayist and gay porn actor Conner Habib to tweet “Celebrate gay marriage by using this promo code on our site and/or purchasing this product!”

But Habib is being unfair. It may have been a case of late-comer bandwagon opportunism for a handful of the brands, but most of the companies that used their social media to celebrate the decision are long-time supporters of LGBT rights with a demonstrated commitment to equality (Orbitz, GAP and Mastercard, are among the 260 firms to receive perfect scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index), They deserved their place in the celebrations and I was happy to see their support.

Another such company is LGBT ally General Mills. It came out with two new rainbow marshmallows for their Lucky Charms cereal and launched a #luckytobe hashtag on Twitter to encourage users to tweet their pride.

The YouTube video for the new marbits talks about “the lucky ones”:

“Being different is not an issue, or a problem. It’s lucky. Being unique and colorful and expressive and unapologetic are all very lucky things to be. So we raise our spoons to the lucky ones. To those living life on their terms and loving every single second of it.”

I didn’t tweet on the hashtag but it got me thinking about the message of the charm. How lucky is it to be gay?

It’s an odd phrase, lucky to be gay. The other lucky-to phrases that first come to mind–“I’m lucky to have this job” or “I’m lucky to have found this apartment” suggest that the content of my luck is a good but rare thing for my circumstances. Luck implies that I may not have even deserved this good fortune, but even if I had, I could not have secured on my own. The outcome happens without our volition or efforts. This is true even when our luck is not the acquisition of a good but the avoidance of its loss, the forestalling of a greater injury or catastrophe: “I’m lucky to be alive” or “I’m lucky I only broke my arm”. Luck is thus to some degree always unexpected; our stroke of good fortune, whether wished for or merely stumbled upon, is an occasion as much for surprise as it is for gratitude.

Interpreted in this light, then, the Lucky Charms proposition says something about both the origin (“a chance occurrence of the improbable”) and the outcome (“a good and rare thing”) of being gay.

Obviously one’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, though being gay, in the sense of affirming this orientation as an integral element of identity in community, is (I wrote about this in an earlier post which also happened to be on the DOMA case). My sexual orientation is not something I could have made happen, That was decided earlier on in a shuffle of genes, triggered proteins and the great hormonal soup of the embryo. It wasn’t entirely random. I had a greater probability of being gay given my family line and birth order and whatever else went into casting my orientation. Still, it was chance enough to call it luck.

But it can be luck only if the outcome itself is positive, a good and rare thing. Who says, “I’m lucky to have gotten evicted”?

In fact, I believe there are ways in which I have been advantaged rather than handicapped by my sexual orientation. Or to cast in the language of luck, there are good and special things about being gay.

Now the good things. First of all, there’s the sex. I know, this is something we don’t talk about these days, and I realize why it might be politically inexpedient to do so at this time. But it’s there, and so it makes sense to me to talk about it. (I recognize that what I say next may not apply to other gay men or lesbians and I don’t want to generalize too broadly from my own experience and that of the men I’ve known. Apologies for the narrow focus).

During high school I would listen to my straight teammates talk about making out with their girlfriends and wonder when I would experience my first kiss with another guy. Though I knew there must be guys my age who felt the way I did, I couldn’t imagine how I’d meet them and if I did, whether I’d want to be with them or them with me. And then in college I found myself pursued by other men. There was suddenly all this opportunity. I just had to look and it happened. Admittedly, being young and halfway attractive helped but it wasn’t all a matter of age and beauty.

Sex. It’s easier to find it and have it and enjoy it without things getting complicated. I don’t know if the ease or readiness with which two guys will have sex is more a function of male sexuality in general than of sexual orientation per se. But whatever the reason, the greater availability of sex seems to be a salient part of the experience of a good number of urban gay men. At least it has been for me and the men I’ve known.

Now taken on its own, this availability is just a statement of probability (e.g. the average gay man in his 30s in Boston who is not in a relationship is likely to be able to have sex more easily than his straight counterpart) and not a value judgment. Sex with more partners isn’t in principle necessarily any better or worse than sex with one partner for the duration of one’s adult life. It’s all in the details of how and when and how. Fidelity is not the same thing as exclusivity, and one finds love, good faith and respect in fuck buddies and husbands alike.

Sex wouldn’t be available without men to have it with, of course, and here comes the interesting part. The men I met were not always the kind I might have encountered in my professional or social life if I were straight. I was just as likely to meet a mason as an architect, a soldier as much as a captain.

If you’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s film about Harvey Milk you may remember his depiction of the activist’s circle of friends in the Castro. These men—the Harvard graduate, the hash dealer, the dancer, the runaway kid from Phoenix who used to turn tricks on Polk Street—form a community of friends that if not for their sexual identity would probably never have come together. It is a community that is remarkable for both its heterogeneity and its cohesiveness, for the way its members learn from one another and, particularly in Cleve’s case (the kid from Phoenix), come of age.

I think of the men with whom over the years I have sat at table or in bed. Some entered my life for the duration a brief affair, others became lovers or friends. A poet and a short-order cook. A hospital orderly and an engineer who led me down a subway tunnel whose excavation he was supervising. I met men without a job and a few who didn’t need one.

They have shown me wonderful things and taught me much about life and friendship and music and politics and a hundred other things, though none sought to be a teacher. I think of Daniel, who taught me how to look at a painting. Tom, who showed me that sex isn’t just fucking. Mark, from whom I discovered that sauces are created, not spooned out of a jar. Mischa, who helped me see things like bowls, ears and beaks in letters. Men who showed me why Lucille Ball was as good as Chaplin and what it means to work 50 hours a week off the books.

We all learn from lovers, whatever our sexuality. But for me, the osmosis of experience, knowledge and perspectives that move across the relatively (though not wholly) porous class boundaries in the gay community is another reason to feel lucky.

It’s more than sex that accounts for this permeability. It’s our common history. Whatever the circumstances of our upbringing, we have all had to deal with feeling different and at times even intimidated, if only by our own sense of not fitting in. We have done the hard work of coming out, each in his or her own way but nearly all of us, at least in the beginning, pretty much on our own (though thankfully there are now more resources, role models and visibility that LGBT youth can draw upon in their coming out). We are veterans of the same struggle: I know that you know.

This struggle has endowed many of us with a healthy skepticism and in this, too, I feel lucky. Growing up gay taught me to see that the way things are is not the same as the way things ought to be. And while I may have wanted at first wanted to fit in, perhaps desperately so, I soon realized that the cost for doing so was too high and the rewards overrated.

Of course, there are other ways to cultivate a way of thinking critically about the world and the society in which one lives so as to ask, “What is the right thing to do?” But there are countless other ways not to do so and to remain hostage to prejudice, superstition and fear.

In the end it’s not about luck at all. That we do come to accept and embrace our sexuality and to live our life, as the Charms would put it, on our own terms, unapologetically, is good fortune indeed. But it is fortune brought about by personal courage and determination—and the battles that others before have waged and won–and not by chance. Unless, as some might say, luck is nothing more than the heightened awareness to identify and seize the opportunities that help us lead an authentic and full life.


Image: “Listeners of Music”, Magnus Enckell (1897).  Enckell (1870-1925) was a Finnish painter and leading figure among the Symbolist artists in his country. His sensual yet chromatically subdued paintings of the male nude are, for the time they were painted, surprisingly homoerotic. For his commission for the Tampere Cathedral, Enckell, who was by then the most eminent artist in Finland and known to be gay, included in his depiction of the resurrection of the dead two men walking hand in hand. More on the work of this wonderful artist (and reproductions of a number of his paintings) here.

The section on Milk. gay friendship and coming of age comes from my post The Convivium of the Castro.


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